It seems almost impossible to believe that fifty years ago Britain not only had a thriving horror film studio that made dozens of worldwide box office hits in Hammer, but it also had RIVAL horror studios trying to muscle in on its territory. The biggest of these was Amicus who’s greatest movies tended to be portmanteaux features – usually five stories of varying degrees of misery with a wrap around plot that almost certainly resulted in everyone dying.
Using the anthology structure made Amicus’s movies stand out from Hammer’s array of Frankensteins, Draculas and Gorgons. However they were also happy to steal Hammer’s casts and crews whenever they saw a downtime in their schedules. The structure also meant that, as the five stories would only require an actor to be on set for a few days they could get all the big players for a few bob on the weekend (I’m guessing). So both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star here, the latter as a smarmy art critic who gets harassed by a disembodied hand and the former as the eponymous Dr Terror. Even more of a catch is that the film is directed by Freddie Francis who was Hammer’s best director and one of cinema’s finest cinematographers. It is fairly obvious that Dr Terror’s House of Horrors had about ten guinees to spend on the whole production but that’s the thing back in the sixties – there were so many talented people kicking around that they could make something cheap and nasty into something approaching hight art. Or at the very least a minor work of beauty.
We begin with five men climbing aboard a train and finding themselves sharing the same carriage. Among the gang are Roy Castle and a very young looking Donald Sutherland. Then along comes Cushing looking all suspicious and beardy. It doesn’t take long before he’s reading all their tarot cards and we get their futures told in flash forwards.
All the stories are, quite frankly, daft. The first one is probably the most serious one, involving a chap returning to his ancestral home only to discover something nasty buried in the cellar. The tone is pretty serious and it has some effective moments when he starts to dig up a coffin, which almost certainly is a bad idea in any ancestral home. The second story is a very silly one about a killer plant which is let down by some rubbish moving plant effects which are clearly the actor moving the plant about and pretending it is alive. It would be worse but I’ve seen The Happening.
Next up is some embarrassingly old fashioned (and a little bit racist) stuff involving Roy Castle stealing voodoo music and from the West Indies and paying the price when he tries to adapt it for his jazz band back in good old Blighty. On the positive side Roy Castle gets to play the trumpet quite a lot which will remind anyone who used to watch Roy on Record Breakers what a great player he was.
Next up is Lee’s story involved the aforementioned severed hand trying to kill him. I’m sorry but when, if ever, were severed hands scary? I’m not saying that if one started crawling across the floor now I wouldn’t be freaking out and looking for the nearest axe but in movies they are just ridiculous. Did you ever see Oliver Stone’s directorial début? The Hand starred Michael Caine during his anything-for-money phase as an artist who loses his hand which then goes about killing people who annoy him. It was played straight but was bad, I mean really bad. Killer hands just don’t work. Its even worse here when the hand in question is a rather lame rubber effect where you can see the mould line down the side of it. At least Sam Raimi had the good sense to realise the killer hand was a joke and treat it that way in Evil Dead 2.
The final story again isn’t very serious and involves Sutherland marrying a French beauty, called Nicole of course, and bringing her back to his own town only to find out she’s a vampire. Stuff happens. But they hey its not like Amicus was really trying to push boundaries here: the stories are called Vampire, Creeping Vine, Voodoo, Disembodied Hand and Vampire, they’re just about covering five of the sub genres.
Not that any of this actually matters one bit. Despite its lack of originality or even much seriousness to the stories it all somehow works. Of course Cushing and Lee are excellent as always, probably because they didn’t know how to do anything except be great, but all the other players also put there all into it. Then there’s Francis’s beautiful camera work. There are so many beautiful compositions, with his use of light and shadows really creating a fantastic atmosphere. It is a shame that I watched it on the Horror Channel though. Even with a big TV and a decent sound system it doesn’t stop the film looking more like a poor upload on youtube with its soft and compressed picture and its muffled sound. I understand a little station like the Horror Channel doesn’t have much money but with more and more high definition being available its beginning to look embarrassing. Especially when you’re watching something that clearly has been shot by a genius.
Anyway, even ignoring that it doesn’t change the fact that Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is a lot of fun. The stories zip by at a good rate and even if you can guess what’s going to happen (which isn’t hard) there is always another tale just waiting around the corner. Plus there are loads of little details that will keep you entertained. For example there’s a terrific moment when Roy Castle, being chased through the streets of London by a Voodoo god, falls down next to a poster for Freddie Francis’s new film – Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. How wonderfully meta for 1965.